On the Poets: Contributors in Context by Donald Gardner
Donald Gardner is a poet and translator who has lived in the Netherlands since 1979. Recent collections of his own poetry are The Wolf Inside (Hearing Eye Books, London 2014) and Early Morning (Grey Suit Editions, London 2017). Originally a Spanish-language translator (Octavio Paz, The Sun Stone, Cosmos Books 1969), he has translated many Dutch and Flemish poets over the years. He published two collections of Remco Campert’s poetry, I Dreamed in the Cities at Night (Arc Publications, 2008) and In those Days (Shoestring Press, 2014). For the latter collection he received the prestigious Vondel Prize, a two-yearly award for Dutch-English literary translation.
The literary critic Arjan Peters recently (September 16) published a correspondence with three Dutch poets in the Dutch daily, De Volkskrant about poetry in Holland. It is an interesting discussion because it covers certain issues that are universally talked about when poetry is the theme – above all that of ‘difficulty’ versus ‘simplicity’ in poetry. What may strike the reader, however, is the level of anxiety that Peters reveals about the medium of poetry as such. He asks whether poetry may or may not be difficult. Can seemingly light-weight or frivolous work still be respected as poetry? How far may one stray from traditional forms, without losing one’s readership? A similar discussion about the visual arts in the Netherlands would be unlikely. Now nearly a century ago, Modernism in painting, firmly embedded in Dutch consciousness by Theo van Doesberg and Mondrian, is no longer an issue. Holland however is not often thought of as a nation of poets, while it is internationally famed for its designers, architects and painters.
In fact, poetry in the Netherlands is encouraged by a system of public funding and a network of awards and there is no shortage of individuals here who make it their vocation – even more so if one includes Flemish poets, from Van Ostaijen onwards. At the same time, it is hard to speak of Dutch poetry as having a distinctive character. Many of the poets in this anthology should be treated on their own terms, as individual poets with their own style and borrowings. What they do have in common is that they all, directly or glancingly, have plenty to say about today’s world. A sense of engagement is something they share. At the same time this does not necessarily imply a political or social commitment, but rather betrays a frustration with everyday attitudes, with the way language is used and with the world as it is generally perceived. Many of them are declared enemies of conventional modes of thinking and seeing. The great Dutch Jewish heretic philosopher Spinoza may be the hidden father of many of the contrary-thinking poets in this selection.
Colmer begins his selection with two poets who are foundational for post-war developments – Nijhoff and Achterberg. Gerrit Achterberg straddles the pre-war and post-war periods. His life was dominated by the fact that he murdered his landlady, for which he was committed to an asylum for five years and it is perhaps not surprising that love, death and loss are thematically intertwined in much of his impressive body of work. While his poetry might be seen as romantic, both he and Nijhoff engage in a metaphysical quest; there is a religious sensibility in both, a sense of a desire for something beyond the pale of ordinary life, while the way is barred for them for falling back on the consolations of traditional religion. Nijhoff’s poetry is more classical. There is a coldness in his portrayal of the figure of Awater, a modern Everyman of thwarted longings and occasional outbursts of emotion, as when he speaks of his mother. Another poem here, ‘The Dancer’, is an image of passion in chains, and, possibly coincidentally, reminding me of Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous poem ‘The Panther’.
Together, they form a preamble to what is perhaps the best-known group of modern Dutch poets, the Vijftigers, or ‘Fifties’ poets, who, despite their differences, made their name by consciously breaking with traditional attitudes and forms and calling for a revolution in poetry. Initially, their activities ran parallel to a movement in painting, the Cobra group of Expressionist painters, a number of whom were also Dutch. Poets and painters saw themselves as colleagues and many of them spent time in Paris, which they saw as a reference point in their efforts to write a poetry that was less provincial and timid than that of their predecessors.
In a poem of 2014, ‘Light of my Life’, Remco Campert, perhaps the best known of this group, recalls his birth into poetry as one of this group: ‘I first saw the light of day in The Hague / but it was in Amsterdam, Van Eeghenlaan 7/ in the company of poets – Lucebert’s roar of laughter and Schierbeek’s hiccupping ‘Boek Ik’ – / that my words saw the light / which never left me… ’ The solidarity of the members of this group has served as a launching pad for much of what happened in the decades that followed. (Bert Schierbeek, not included here, is today a somewhat neglected poet, but he was none the less influential, having introduced modern forms from the United States into Dutch poetry.) Campert and Gerrit Kouwenaar are very different, but they both saw themselves as breaking with a lyrical past and introducing off-hand everyday language into poetry. In Campert’s case it takes the form of a free-verse, almost journalistic line, such as English-speaking readers will be familiar with in the work of someone like William Carlos Williams. Kouwenaar wrote: ‘Never have I striven for anything other than this:/ making stone soft / making fire from water /making rain from thirst’ – lines that are very close to Campert’s ‘Credo’ (my translation), ‘I believe in a river/ that flows from the sea to the mountains... // I don’t want to strike water out of the rocks/ I want to bring it to the rocks.’ and Lucebert: ‘yet I, who live in this volume / like a rat in a trap, long for the sewers / of revolution and cry: rhyme-rats, pillory, / pillory this far too pretty school of poetry.’ They might have been looking over each other’s shoulders.
Of this school, Lucebert who was painter as well as poet, was the most radical and experimental; his fury, veiled in paradox, hisses on the page. But both he and Campert can be seen as European poets, identifying as they did with a wider movement than the merely Dutch. Campert had spent time in Paris and lived three years in Antwerp and they broke, living in the lee of the War, with what they saw as a long-lingering traditional ‘poeticism’ in Dutch poetry. Both can be seen as relating to a seam in European modernism – Campert with Jacques Prévert and Lucebert with Antonin Artaud and the Surrealists.
At the end of the period covered by ‘The Enchanting Verses’, another development, perhaps similar to that of the Vijftiger group, is taking place, driven as was the earlier group by political and social circumstances. History has not stood still here. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Netherlands was engaged in what was called the reconstruction period. The elements of the modern welfare state were put in place and the divisions exposed by the German occupation were either healed or more often papered over. While their childhood was scarred by the Occupation, the poets of the post-war period were also critical of this new status quo which they saw as masking a deeper-seated unease. Peacetime for them did not mean bourgeois propriety.
Scroll down two generations to the present day, and the Netherlands seems barely the same country. The old secular consensus and the truce between secular groupings and those of religion that served as social cement till the 70s has been broken. One result is that it has become increasingly difficult to form the coalition governments that gave the country stable rule for so long. Moreover, the image of Holland as a home of Enlightenment and progressive values has been shattered. Since the millennium, other disruptive developments have taken place. The slump of 2008 was accompanied here as elsewhere by an assault on the assets of the Dutch welfare state that had made this a comparatively kindly society. During these years too, an anti-Islam and anti-immigrant party has enjoyed an explosive growth, gaining approval from broad swathes of the population and forming a direct challenge to the Dutch tradition of ‘tolerance’. Recently capitalism has returned with a vengeance. This can be seen, in Amsterdam, for instance, in the explosion of a new tourism that is choking the normal life of the city like a creeping vine.
The helter-skelter developments of these years have not left Dutch literature untouched and they are reflected, if not directly, in the generation of poets who are now nearing fifty, born in the 1970s, whose role is now pivotal in Dutch poetry and who are well represented in this book – Menno Wigman, Ramsey Nasr, Maria Barnas, Hagar Peters and Mustafa Stitou. These poets do not form a school, but they are colleagues who know each other well, meeting each other on the same reading circuit. They are the heirs to a deeply unsettled society, even if few of them ‘take the bull by the horns’. The most directly socially engaged is Ramsey Nasr, the former poet laureate and an actor with Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the best-known Dutch theatre group, who is known for his public readings. In his selection here he speaks out against the invasive dynamics of religion: ‘All faiths share this as fatal forte. Too vast / for us to grasp, they finally push on through / to where we’d always thought ourselves immune.’ In another long poem he focuses on the Dutch conductor at the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Willem Mengelenberg, who retained his post throughout the war, despite his cherished composer Gustav Mahler being banned from the repertoire. The other poets in this generation largely turn inwards for inspiration, although the struggle with themselves often echoes in inverse fashion the unsettled tide of events that surrounds us.
Maria Barnas’ witty and subversive work can be seen as a quest for an identity that always just eludes her: ‘The floors /are buckling and the windows and doors // show cracks. These are the hinges / of an existence I call my own.’ Nothing is what it seems for her and appearances are indeed just that – appearances. In another poem, she points out that, ‘The corner of an eye can contain many things’, and this could almost be taken as a mission statement.
Hagar Peeters by contrast goes to war, although her work oscillates between earnest and jest. She takes on lovers, imaginary or real and speaks of her alienation from her parents, making play of her name, Hagar, the outcast mistress of Abraham. It is a poetry that is angry, comic and erotic and which expresses solidarity with all those who don’t belong in our society with its unwritten rules and protocols. Mustafa Stitou writes poems that seem at first sight like dark cryptograms laced with a dangerous wit. Born in Morocco, but brought up in Lelystad, the model new Dutch town, he struggles with his identity and his lack of faith, drawing on philosophical ideas – Darwin and Spinoza - and on the tradition of the absurd. Irony seems to be his long suit. He is a sphinx-like poet who guards his true identity like a dog its bone. Perhaps he has not found an identity to which he can relate, but he will be the last to admit this to his readers. His wit, one of the constants in his poetry can often seem more like a cudgel than a rapier but it is a comic cudgel, where the misses are as entertaining as the hits. Playing dumb in fact is raised to the level of a poetic technique. In the prose poem about his father’s death he writes, ‘We reached the grave, which was already dug. Without a word he settled down, lying on his side, then turning over to lie on the other side. His god wants him to face east, I thought, towards Mecca. Fortunately he didn’t ask me which way east was, because I didn’t know.’
Menno Wigman, slightly older than the rest of this group, stands out in his adherence to classical forms – the sonnet and the iambic pentameter. His content however is often a commentary on the meaner minutiae of life as it is now lived. Here are a few lines from ‘Sunday, Garden Centre’ in David Colmer’s translation ‘… to each his private hell. / Live by the clock, commute to the office, / spend weekdays praising boiled coffee, / suffer colleagues, refill your coffers, / Sundays: garden-centre shopping.’ What stops his poetry from being gratuitously macabre is that Wigman is not easy on himself either. These short lyrics have a chiselled monumental character, making his voice an important one that deserves to be heard beyond the Netherlands.
What links these poets, while they do not form a school or movement as such, is the strictures of the age they live in, that leaves its stamp on them whether they turn inward or respond to it with ironic or frustrated commentary. All of them are poets of ideas and the intelligence they bring to their work makes them a force. While none of them are directly political (with the exception of Nasr) all are responsive to the uncertainties of our times.
To simply divide the poetry of a nation into ‘schools’ would be convenient for a critic but the Netherlands has always prided itself on its individualism, and most of the poets here don’t fit into a category or group. I will close by mentioning a few of them, outstanding poets in mid-career.
Hester Knibbe (b. 1945) is a poet who has developed her own voice over a number of decades. Her themes are traditional ones – the loss of a loved one – in this case her son – is a backdrop in many of them, as are change and the acceptance of the new. In a poem called ‘The Son’ her dead son is the speaker: ‘My mother sits at the table, writing / inconsolably. So I don’t console / her. She doesn’t want to lose me. While // I sit next to her, she looks / just past me, finding the white / under her hands that she fills // with me…’ (Hungerpots, New and Selected poems translated by Jacquelyn Pope, Eyewear Press, London 2015). There is an eerie sureness of tone, a spareness of language in her work. Her poems are melancholy or heart-rending and she does not spare herself either – the mark of a true poet.
Esther Jansma is an archaeologist and poet. A sense of the impermanence of our lives imbues her lines. The distance between the past and today can vanish sometimes, as in her poem ‘Archaeology’: ‘You are sitting at table. Suddenly you see how someone / was crossing ice, how the cold got its grip on him // or some other fate and you say: look,/ here you have his shoes, leather jacket, gloves./ Where is time? Time is here.’ (tr. James Brockway). Much of her work seems a bid to tame intense emotion in relatively formal stanzas, as in Francis Jones’ translation here: ‘And she always happens just like that // to stand up straight, wipe the snow from her eyes, / brush herself down, do the usual, buy a paper. / All things fall towards their end, but how can I / always know this, at times it slips my mind.’
Nachoem Wijnberg has published seventeen collections of poetry. ‘Quicksilver’ is the word that best describes his work, which is by turns witty, philosophical and lyrical. The reader is challenged to identify the subject in any of his poems. No sooner said, than it has shifted. And yet his work is never ‘difficult’; what is wonderful is how he skates on the surface of language. His work manages to be both evasive and to the point; above all, it is very readable and has great charm. With its verbal trompe l’oeil effects, it reminds one of the architectural visions of the popular Dutch artist M.C. Escher.
Finally, a few words about Anna Enquist, who has suffered similar personal loss to Knibbe. She tells of this in many of her poems, but her struggle to attain healing through poetry is more overt than Knibbe’s, possibly because she is a psychoanalyst as well as a poet. Here’s an example from ‘Good Advice’: ‘Sit down then // at the piano and flee into your fingers. / Translate notes, limit yourself to / a modest review, two measures at most. // Gradually the music consumes you. You slip / through the bars of sound you have raised, patiently repeating the healing notes.’
In conclusion, I have tried to provide a survey of Dutch poetry from the immediate pre-war period to the present day, although inevitably there has only been room for cameos of some of the poets in this anthology. I will leave the translations of my colleagues to speak for themselves, as indeed they do, most eloquently. The Dutch originals have been conveyed in English lucidly and with a high level of professional sensitivity. This is, for the most part, not an experimental poetry, nor is there much formal innovation, but the work of these poets does testify to a deep sense of vocation and craft. Dutch poetry, following the example of the Vijftigers, is nothing if not self-aware. Many of them manage to combine a degree of self-scrutiny and lyricism, with an engagement with the times, social and intellectual – times that have moved from the devastation of war, through a quite literal reconstruction and short-lasting stability, only to end up once more with a new uncertainty.